Incumbent Sen. Phil Fortunato and challenger Chris Vance sparred over abortion, COVID-19, and much more in a recent joint interview-debate hosted by the Enumclaw Courier-Herald, a sister newspaper of the Auburn Reporter.
The two candidates are vying in the November general election for the Senate seat of Washington’s 31st District, which includes the cities of Auburn, Sumner, Bonney Lake, Buckley and Enumclaw.
On some issues, the two mostly concurred: Both said they’d oppose new taxes and that police need more support. But on the most fiercely debated issues of the day, they generally presented starkly opposing views.
Fortunato was appointed to the Senate seat in 2017 and has won re-election since then. Fortunato owns ECO 3, a consulting and training firm for stormwater and erosion compliance.
Conservative allies see in Fortunato an unflinching shield against left-wing values encroaching into the hinterlands. Opponents see a radical right-wing culture warrior pulling stunts like getting kicked out of the state capitol for refusing to wear a mask.
“People don’t want a moderate approach to taxes,” Fortunato said at the interview. “They want staunch opposition. They don’t want a moderate approach to government regulation. They want staunch resistance.”
Chris Vance is currently the communications director for the King County Assessments Department. After a long career in Republicans politics, Vance left the party in 2017 due to a disgust with President Donald Trump and a feeling that he had gone out of step with Republican leadership.
“Both parties have lost their minds,” Vance said. “I’m trying to become the first Independent elected to the Washington State Legislature ever… And it’s hard. We got into this race based on polling that showed it’s a very viable path, that people are hungry for change.”
Both candidates reacted to Gov. Jay Inslee’s recent announcement to end (on Oct. 31) his nearly three-year COVID-19 declaration of emergency, which was made in February 2020. It marks a new era in how Washington handles the virus — treating the pandemic now as an ongoing health adversity to be managed, not a crisis situation requiring direct intervention.
Fortunato said it should have happened by April or May 2020. Early on in the pandemic, he called on lawmakers to hold a special session to address Inslee’s emergency powers. And he’s criticized the state response for years, arguing the closure early on of many “non-essential” businesses was plainly unfair.
“So I could go to Walmart to buy baby clothes, but I can’t go to the little local store to buy baby clothes, even though she might get three or four customers a day,” Fortunato said. “I mean, this was inconsistent.”
Vance agreed that the COVID-19 situation in Washington is no longer an emergency and that it was past time for the Governor to revoke the declaration.
But while no one has enjoyed the last three years, Vance said, state and local leaders implemented obvious measures — like mask wearing, social distancing and vaccine development — that worked.
“If we had done what Sen. Fortunato and a lot of other Republicans wanted to do … there would literally be 10 to 15,000 more dead people in this state,” Vance said. “Jay Inslee and Dow Constantine and responsible leaders … saved lives.”
Both men agreed that state law is too ambiguous around emergency declarations, and the legislature needs to address the executive’s power to declare and maintain them.
The 1973 Roe v. Wade decision ruled that Americans had a constitutional right to abortion. In June 2022, the Supreme Court overruled that decision, reversing the court’s precedent and returning the legality of abortion to the states. Abortion is legal in Washington state up to the point of fetal viability (around 23 or 24 weeks).
Vance called abortion one of the most important issues in the race and the country, and said the Legislature should not interfere with people’s access to it. Any effort to change the law on abortion should be in the form of an initiative to the people, he said.
“We all have deeply personal views about abortion, but as a matter of public policy, the people of this state … voted twice to make our abortion laws what they are today,” Vance said. “I will defend our pro-choice laws, and if we need to strengthen those laws … I’d be willing to do that.”
Fortunato is generally against access to abortion and said he takes issue even with exceptions for rape and incest because “the child is (deemed) guilty for the sins of the father.”
But “would I vote for a bill that said (abortion is banned) except for rape and incest? Absolutely, 100 percent,” Fortunato said. “I’d do that tomorrow afternoon. If it saves one life, that’s good.”
Fortunato went through a list of abortion-related bills he’s championed, including last year’s SB 5516, which would require those seeking abortions to be told, in writing, the risks and alternatives to abortion, the gestational age of the fetus, the risks of carrying a child to term, the availability of assistance for pre- and postnatal care, and the legal requirements of a father to support a newly-born child.
Fortunato has also called for restricting the procedure to only be performed by physicians rather than healthcare providers in general. He recounted telling a constituent that “I think we can both agree that having a doctor do this procedure, when a woman is making this decision … she deserves the right to have the best healthcare possible.”
Vance fired back that the existing law around abortion is supported by the state’s healthcare community, and accused Fortunato of deflecting anyway — Fortunato’s legislative efforts, even if they sound well-intentioned, are all in the service of making the procedure harder to access, Vance accused.
“I’m pro-life … If you don’t like my position on me being pro-life, don’t vote for me. Vote for this guy,” Fortunato said, gesturing to Vance.
“Yes, please,” Vance replied. “Exactly.”
On police, both men broadly agreed that the 2021 legislative session went too far in restricting police tactics. While some of those bills were walked back a bit last year, other changes remain, like the high bar for vehicle pursuits.
The state also needs to step in to help fund county-level law enforcement, Vance said. He said he understands the motivation toward police reform in the light of the murder of George Floyd and other high-profile police misconduct, and said cops should be held accountable for their failures.
“But it is just not possible for 147 politicians on the floor of the house and senate to rewrite how police are trained, (their) longstanding practices, and what they’re able to do in the field,” Vance said.
Vance agreed that Democrats went “way too far” in restricting police but said questionable actions at the hands of the police, and systemic racism in the criminal justice system, are real problems. And Vance reprimanded Republicans in general for their response — or lack thereof — to criticisms of structural racism in America’s institutions.
“The party that was founded on fighting for civil rights and ending slavery for Black people has become racist itself,” Vance said.
Fortunato said Democrat lawmakers mishandled the legislative process and produced a slough of bad bills. He also pointed to the Blake decision as a failure in the state’s criminal code. (The State Supreme Court ruled last year that the state’s simple drug possession law was unconstitutional because it didn’t distinguish between people who intentionally or accidentally possessed drugs.)
“(I have) jokingly said that Democrats reduce crime by making crime legal,” Fortunato said. “Cops don’t even bother arresting people for drugs (now). … And all of this is because of the Democrats’ view on how to address crime.”
Fortunato pointed to the protests in Seattle during the summer of 2020 — which led to the creation of the CHAZ / CHOP area in the Capitol Hill neighborhood — as an example of what happens when police hands are tied by lawmakers.
“A demonstration (turned) into a riot, into seizing part of the city. That’s what happens when you restrict the use of some of these things,” Fortunato said. “These people have no idea what they’re talking about.”